That aesthetic discernment can exist entirely on its own, devoid of human warmth, is demonstrated by the lives of the art connoisseurs Bernard Berenson and Kenneth Clark. As leading arbiters of taste in their day, both enjoyed all the trappings of success. Berenson, the oracle on Italian Renaissance paintings who had gotten his start by helping Isabella Stewart Gardner build her collection in Boston, held court at his Tuscan villa, I Tatti, in the hills above Florence. This was the fulfillment of his youthful fantasy of a monastery whose inhabitants could live lives of exquisite contemplation, admired by the rich and powerful.
His protege Kenneth Clark, whose meteoric career in Britain included becoming director of the National Gallery at the age of 30, was that rare specimen: an art critic who could translate complex ideas into easily understandable terms. Books such as Landscape into Art and The Nude, and his 1969 television series Civilisation, had the reviewers cheering. Ennobled as Baron Clark of Saltwood, he, too, ended up owning his private paradise, Saltwood Castle in Kent, complete with its very own moat.
But beneath the elegant façades, there were cracks: Known for his poisonous tongue, Berenson was intensely resentful of his colleagues in the art world, particularly German scholars, many of whom happened to be Jews. “Truly, German Jews do make a Nazi of me,” he wrote to Clark in 1936, and compared their writings to the stench of “the bat droppings at the Ajanta caves in West Central India.” Transplanted at the age of 10 from a Lithuanian shtetl to live among better-off German Jews in Boston, he was left with a permanent scar which no amount of Harvard polish could cover.
In Clark, the combination of an unresponsive mother and a public school upbringing also had psychological consequences. This was a man who once confessed that storms at sea held no terror for him since he was too unfeeling to be scared. Upbraided by Berenson for his reserve, Clark answered that he came from “an undemonstrative family” and his feelings were “as stiff as an unused limb.” For him, art provided the surrogate.
My Dear BB . . . contains their correspondence from 1925 to the autumn of 1959, a few months before Berenson’s death at 94, and comes with excellent chapter introductions by its editor, Robert Cumming. The two first met in 1925 when Berenson was 60 and Clark was 22, just out of Oxford. Clark was to help Berenson with an update of his Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1903), which together with his four books on the Italian masters had cemented Berenson’s name. Though Clark was let go after two years, they remained in touch.
The letters reflect the rarefied atmosphere of connoisseurship and are crowded with estimable names: the Oliviers, Margot Fonteyn, Edith Wharton, Somerset Maugham, Calouste Gulbenkian, the Aga Khan, and assorted British royalty. Shop talk and pet peeves abound. As the celebrator of clarity, order, and harmony, Berenson feels ill at ease in the 20th century: He deservedly dismisses Picasso as “an academic draughtsman of genius” who, when not finding buyers, “deliberately took to the woods.” Clark is somewhat more attuned to the modern—although whether from a need to conform, or from inner conviction, we don’t know. Both see abstract art as a dead end, amounting to what Clark elsewhere has called “tasteful pieces of decoration.”
Berenson’s bêtes noires, German art historians, make repeated appearances: “The Talmudic Hegelian writings . . . turned out by the phonies of Central Europe.” Berenson was inspired by the late Victorian aestheticism of Walter Pater, with his stress on pure enjoyment. To Berenson, only the painting mattered, and his expertise was based on an intuitive feel for the artist; the Germans favored a broader, less subjective, approach, stressing context and iconography. Clark’s strength, notes Cumming, was his ability to combine the two approaches.
In addition to his gifts as critic, Kenneth Clark also possessed a prodigious organizational talent. With war looming in 1938, as director of the National Gallery, he oversaw the removal of its paintings to safe storage, providing a dress rehearsal for the real thing: “I now feel confident that I could move an army corps,” he writes to Berenson.